John Travolta, Wayne Rogers and Other Actors Invest Their Talents in Summer Stock

updated 08/23/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1982 01:00AM

For summertime theatergoers, the best seats to a Broadway play are often found in surprising places. In Flint, Mich. and Akron, Ohio, in Birmingham, Ala. and Stockbridge, Mass., seasoned stars are treading the boards in a variety of recycled dramas, comedies and musicals. For the performers, the so-called strawhat circuit of summer theaters offers a chance to flex artistic muscles that might otherwise go soft. TV's Gavin McLeod, for instance, has taken liberty from the Love Boat to join a touring production of Mass Appeal, while film star Sandy Dennis and Flamingo Road's Barbara Rush have gone on the road for a production of the play Supporting Cast. Like them, the actors below have hit the road this summer to prove once again that all the world can be a stage.

Travolta's Mass Appeal has been just that in Colorado
When John Travolta, 28, took on the role of a young seminarian in a Colorado production of Mass Appeal, he opted for a monklike vow of silence in publicizing his appearance with the Snowmass Festival of American Theater. It was his first role since Blow Out 18 months ago, and Travolta showed signs of opening-night fever. He flubbed his lines frequently and finished a clear second to his co-star, veteran stage and screen actor (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) Charles Durning (left). After Travolta ducked the national press and gave interviews to four local papers, Mass Appeal's artistic director, William Shorr, rose to his defense: "To get actors like this we must offer an environment in which they can stretch artistically, where they are free to fail." And no one seemed to care. Travolta drew a dozen SRO crowds to the 290-seat auditorium, giving the festival its first sellout run.

For Cybill, the stage is food for thought
"Actually, I do wear shoes and socks like this," says Cybill Shepherd, 32, of the size 10s and bobby socks she sports onstage in the Jean Kerr comedy Lunch Hour. Shepherd's seven-city tour ends this week at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Mass. Her career slumped after an impressive 1971 movie debut in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. A seven-year romance with the director ended in 1978, and she is currently shedding her husband of three and one-half years, Memphis auto parts dealer David Ford. In 1980 Shepherd auditioned for the Broadway role of the gawky child-wife in Lunch Hour but lost out to Gilda Radner, with no real regrets. "I don't think I would have been ready," she admits. "And the good thing about summer theater is that you leave town soon enough. So no rotten tomatoes."

Shaun's a trouper—he was after all born in a trunk
The Hardy Boyishness is gone. At 23, Shaun Cassidy has chucked his teen-heartthrob threads in favor of a World War II Army uniform and a role in The Subject Was Roses, the 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in which he stars with Betsy Palmer (above) and John McMartin. For Cassidy, the play's stopovers at Falmouth, Mass., Ogunquit, Maine and the Poconos are familiar. "I was used to touring with my parents, so I knew this would be a nice way to spend the summer," he says, noting that he first accompanied his father, the late Jack Cassidy, and mother Shirley Jones on their own strawhat tours when he was scarcely a year old. Like them, Shaun now travels with his family in tow: wife Ann, 30, daughter Caitlin, 9 months, and stepdaughter Jessica, 12. Judging from the enthusiastic response he has gotten in his first serious stage role, more tours may follow. "He wants so much to be an actor, and he is going to become an important one," says old pro Palmer, a veteran of 30 years on the stage and one of the stars of the horror flick Friday the 13th. "It's a delight to work with people who care so much."

Rogers takes a shot at summer satire
When Wayne Rogers, 49, needles somebody this month, it will be in his role as a wigged-out shrink in the black comedy What the Butler Saw. Rogers, who played in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya last summer after an eight-year absence from the stage, says his current two-week gig (along with Marsha Korb and George Martin, right) at the Adelphi Festival Theater on New York's Long Island offers "an opportunity to experience live theater without killing time with a long commitment." The only drawback, observes the star of TV's House Calls and the original Trapper John on the CBS series M*A*S*H, may be the danger of typecasting: "I can't seem to escape playing doctors. I played a detective once, but it didn't pay well enough. So I've gone back to medicine."

They're playing Anton's song (and Dudley's)
"Three nights before we opened I felt as if an elephant were sitting on my chest," admits Susan Anton, 31, describing her debut jitters as a first-time stage actress. After so-so success on TV and the cabaret circuit, the former Miss Muriel Cigar is now lighting up marquees with co-star Dick Latessa (left) in a seven-week tour of the Neil Simon comedy They're Playing Our Song. Anton, who's been teetotaling since a drunk-driving rap last June, expects the musical comedy role to give her "more credibility than anything I've done so far. For the first time in my life I'm being taken seriously and getting a degree of respect." Among those paying respects to the actress is Anton's steady, diminutive Dudley Moore, who flew into Dayton, Ohio and Westbury, N.Y. to catch his golden girl's act.

A midsummer night's sex comedy for Roberts
Another headliner at the Berkshire Theatre is Tony Roberts, 42, starring with Karen Valentine in A Thousand Clowns. During his first stab at summer stock two decades ago, Roberts encountered bats in the playhouse rafters and regular power failures that knocked out the stage lights. There have been no such problems this year. The handsome Berkshire playhouse, designed in 1888 by Stanford White, is the second oldest professional summer theater in the U.S. (after the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.) and, notes Roberts, "Everybody's played here. In fact, Katharine Hepburn made her debut here." For the seldom unemployed Woody Allen movie regular (Annie Hall, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), a season in the mountains has also meant time for sailing, antiquing and "a chance to see what summer is like for everyone else."

Weaver gets back to basics—and base pay
Among those drawing audiences to the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. this summer is Sigourney Weaver, 32, the film actress (Alien, Eyewitness), now working in her second year of summer stock. Cast with Missing star John Shea (left) and Anne Twomey in Philip Barry's 1932 comedy of manners The Animal Kingdom, Weaver has collected the standard Actors Equity minimum of $311.75 per week but insists that she's "amazed we get paid at all. We learn so much, and it is fun." Of course if the pay is paltry, so, too, is the need for profits that has brought down the curtain on many a Broadway production. "The commercial pressures of New York are absent," concedes Weaver. "That's one gun—and it's a bazooka—that's not pointed at us."

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